Fire district floated in North DeKalb

DeKalb County Fire and Rescue Department could lose 20 percent of its service area – and a quarter of its income – under a proposal for a joint fire district of four cities in north-central DeKalb.

But the idea for Dunwoody, Brookhaven, Chamblee and Doraville to launch their own fire department and ambulance service could prove easier on the county than the cities reviewing the idea.

Losing $14 million of its $52 million fire budget, the county would also shed responsibility for handling crashes on I-285 north and emergencies or fires in Perimeter high-rises.

The cities, meanwhile, project they would need to move two of the existing five stations in north central DeKalb, plus build another. They also project borrowing $26 million to pay for the buildings and gear ranging from pumper trucks to advanced-life support medical devices.

“Fire service is generally a lot more complicated than most people think,” said Lanier Swafford, president of the Georgia State Firefighters Association. “It’s not just fighting fires. It’s medical transports. It’s inspections. It’s responding to emergencies.”

The variety of services provided helps explain why larger governments typically handle fire departments.

Cities in Fulton County, for instance, are larger than most of those in DeKalb and provide their own fire departments. The county’s 10 stations service only the 90,000 residents in unincorporated south Fulton, said spokeswoman Jessica Corbitt.

Cobb’s fire department, though, covers 84 percent of its 700,000 residents. Only Austell, Marietta and Smyrna run their own departments, said county fire spokeswoman Denell Boyd.

DeKalb, which is about the same size and makeup of Cobb, serves all but the 20,000 residents of Decatur. The new fire district would serve about 166,000.

The services offered and the taxes charged would likely remain the same for the district, said Dunwoody City Manager Warren Hutmacher.

Dunwoody is pushing the idea in the hopes of bringing yet another government service closer to residents, Hutmacher said.

“We just think we can do more by having the services be a local decision,” Hutmacher said. “That’s something we think it’s time to explore.”

Officials from all four cities plan meetings in late April, to discuss the idea and next steps.

DeKalb, meanwhile, is moving forward on training needed to add 44 firefighters this year, said Chief Eddie O’Brien.

The department has been running at 91 percent of full staff, with 635 people operating out of 26 stations. Still, the county meets the National Fire Protection Association standard, responding to 90 percent of calls within nine minutes.

O’Brien said he and other top county leaders have not researched what if any impact the joint district could have on those guidelines or the department’s budget.

Firefighters, though, worry the district will hamper service both in the cities and the county.

One large apartment fire, for instance, could tax the cities’ force and eat into a likely smaller county force, said Nathan Leota, president of DeKalb Professional Firefighters Local #1492.

“The trend is smaller departments going back to larger systems because there is limited money to do all that needs to be done,” Leota said. “Otherwise, one big event could (overwhelm) our staffs. No one wants that.”